Out Friday is Disney’s first in a lineup of three live action remakes of animated classics for 2019, “Dumbo.” With “Aladdin” to be released in May and “The Lion King” to follow in July, and many sceptic of the decisions to take these stories from animated to live-action, “Dumbo” inspires little confidence in what is to come.
The first act of “Dumbo” tracks with the animated original: a flock of storks delivers a baby elephant to Mama Jumbo and he is mocked for his ears before being separated from his mother and discovered for his marvelous talent of flight. However, as no animals in the movie talk, narrative work is done by two children, Milly and Finley, and their father, Holt (Colin Farrell), who recently returned from World War I as an amputee. The circus is soon acquired by a suspicious amusement park entrepreneur played by Michael Keaton after a hasty deal with the circus owner, Max Medici (Danny DeVito).
“Dumbo” is one hour and 52 minutes long, but every minute lasts a lifetime. Usually in a Disney movie with a slow or underwhelming plot, it is at least validated by high quality visuals and cheery aesthetics. In this film, the graphics are hyperrealistic (in line with director Tim Burton’s usual style), the aesthetic is stale and the visuals are just sad. From a rundown turn-of-the-century circus to the deeply depressing, state of the art Dreamland, Dumbo flutters from one overly saturated fever dream to another.
At the very least, the live-action version has retired the much analyzed crows of the 1941 original, but Burton has found new ways to be tone deaf and insensitive. One of the “main characters” is Rongo the Strongo (DeObia Oparei), who has very few lines and spends the majority of the film in a jungle print toga. The cast also features a Snake Charmer and a Latinx couple who fostered Holt’s children while he was at war and his wife died, but get little dialogue and are seemingly forgotten when not embodying stereotypes. There are also a variety of fat jokes and gags set around a circus mermaid who has let herself go because even a movie about self-acceptance does not pass up an opportunity to grab low-hanging fruit.
The film also features menagerie of weird accents and performances: Eva Green puts on a Pepe Le Pew French accent, Colin Farrell’s Kentucky drawl is just distracting, and I was never really able to figure out what Michael Keaton was even trying to do. In a weirdly anachronistic cameo, ring announcer Michael Buffer shows up at one point to crow “Let’s get ready for Dumbo.” I think it’s pretty rude to talk in movies, but this movie made me burst out in audible confusion, horror or both several times.
I can usually find something positive about the movies I see, even if it is that they are delightfully corny or cheesy, but when it comes to “Dumbo” there is just no there there. If you like the original, go watch that as it is blessedly only one hour and four minutes. If you either have not seen the 1941 film or did not like it, steer clear of the live action remake.